Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 4:1-16) transports me to an age-old land-use battle between the shepherd and the farmer, this one being the archetypal epic featuring a First Family feud between big brother Cain and baby brother Abel. This story, the genesis of fratricide, mirrors the history that was being written across the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago, as the shepherds and hunter-gatherers of the land were being slaughtered by the ever-expanding agriculturalists, whose farming practices led to their needing more and more land to cultivate. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering was a prophetic rejection of this kind of wholesale genocide that came with the “progress” of settled farming, which, according to Jared Diamond, was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. Were Jared Diamond a theologian rather than an anthropologist, he would say that the control and engineering of nature for the purpose of creating surplus food was outside of God’s plan, it was the sin crouching at Cain’s door, and if he had only had the faith and courage to trust God to provide, as Abel did, he would be accepted. But Cain and his factory farm descendants were too invested in industry, too caught up in playing God rather than trusting God, to go back.
It all winds up being the first episode of Murder She Wrote, and the only witness is the blood-soaked earth crying out, the earth which opened up to receive Abel’s blood from Cain’s hand. Cain is banned from the farming business, doomed to wander the earth, protected by a mark that will prevent further killing in the fields. So Cain lived out his days in the land of Wandering (in Hebrew, Nod). It’s a fascinating story, filled with vivid imagery. Bloody hands, bloody earth, the fertile crescent becoming a bloody red crescent. As the song says, there was blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow. This story of blood-stained hands reminds me of a story sung by the a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. I’ll leave you with the full set of lyrics, which speak of the kind of curse foreshadowed in the Cain story and analyzed in Jared Diamond’s work. It speaks to the interwoven network of land and labor and blood we all rely on to simply buy our clothes at a discount price. The song ends with the question we can all ask, and since we are all descendants of Cain, we know the answer.
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world 35% cotton, 65% polyester, the journey begins in Central America in the cotton fields of El Salvador. In a province soaked in blood, pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun pulling cotton for two dollars a day. Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill, a top-forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton through the Panama Canal up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time. In South Carolina at the Burlington mills the cotton joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of Dupont. Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela where oil riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day. Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world, upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago, then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas to the factories of Dupont, on the way to the Burlington mills in South Carolina to meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador. In South Carolina Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric for Sears who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea headed for Haiti this time—May she be one day soon free—Far from the Port-au-Prince palace third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications for three dollars a day. My sisters make my blouse. It leaves the third world for the last time coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me—this third world sister. And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse on sale for 20% discount. Are my hands clean?
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.